Illustration: Emma McKhann

As school approaches, and I’m searching out orange looseleaf folders at Target and back-to-school outfits at Old Navy, there’s a special sort of dread that usually leads me straight to The Container Store: The return of daily homemade lunches.

I know there are five million spice-up-your-school-lunch articles out there. So somebody tell me why I can’t come up with anything more inspired than making a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese in the morning and splitting it between two kids? (Sometimes it also doubles as breakfast.) A Trader Joe’s binge of squeezable applesauce and bags of Pirate Booty keep me covered for a little while, but I feel terrible giving my two kids all that packaged stuff. But if they have to buy the school lunch, believe me, I feel 10 times worse. Granted, their favorite sandwich selections are a bit odd: like sriracha mayo (and nothing else) on small Hawaiian buns (him), or a Nutella sandwich every single day (her). I can’t even tell you how many days the same apple may journey back and forth to school, uneaten (current record: four). I’ve never even dropped a little “Have a great day!” note in there.

My chefs
Photo: Karl Gustafson

Part of me is relieved that my kids are in middle school, logically old enough to feed themselves. The other part is stumped as to how to create lunches—or have stuff available for them to make their own—that they’ll actually eat. Ideally, this added lunch step would not involve me getting up any earlier than I already do, or staying up until midnight cutting the crusts off bread.

Instead of continually banging my head against this particular wall, then, what if we turned it around? What my kids made me lunch for a certain number of days? It would encourage them to think outside their own limited lunchboxes, and hopefully keep nutrition and finances in mind. Takeout editor Kevin Pang sat down with them to help craft the menu and give them a budget ($10 a day; $30 total). My husband was drafted to take them grocery shopping and help them with the trickier recipes. My job was to try to stay as spoiler-free and far from the kitchen as possible.

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We decided on three lunches, to be made on days when they were still on summer vacation.

Day 1: Bowtie pesto pasta and kiwi-strawberry yogurt

Photo: Karl Gustafson

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I’m really glad they came up with this one: We hadn’t made pesto all summer, and it’s one of the few dishes that everyone in the house is on board with. The cheery green pasta didn’t even need to be heated, really, just jazzed up with a packet of parmesan I found left over from a recent office pizza order. (I would have added some cherry tomatoes for extra veggie-ness. Possibly some cute little balls of mozzarella.) But even as-is, the pasta kept me full until my evening commute—give or take a late afternoon snack of yogurt.

I’ll deduct a few points for my kids’ brand ignorance: How can they not realize that I’m a Chobani person? But our office lacks vending machines, which means that many days I am trolling for food in the afternoon, hungry but not actually hungry enough to haul my lazy ass out of the building and go get something. If I’m lucky, I might have a bag of Sun Chips or a granola bar stashed in my desk. Lately I have also been snacking (filled with shame) on the sugary boxes of cereal left over from Takeout editor Kevin Pang’s cereal milk experiment. So just having a Yoplait yogurt at the ready made me feel snack-secure.

Day 2: Curried chicken salad sandwich, sad banana, apple, and Cheez-Its

Photo: Karl Gustafson

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I believe I’ve mentioned that my husband has a spice-abuse problem, which the kids have now inherited. So everything in our house veers on the edge of being overseasoned, rather than underseasoned. Whereas am I fine with just some mayo and pickle relish in my tuna salad, the rest of my family is apt to dump in enough curry powder that it could double as an entree at an Indian restaurant.

So I was not surprised when lunch number two featured a chicken version of our household’s classic curry tuna salad, featuring Zanzibar curry powder, chives, and lots of cilantro. Fortunately, enough mayo had been added so that the curry wasn’t too overpowering. Actually, a bowl of it might have been rough, but it made for a fine sandwich with some crunchy lettuce. I swear that banana looked absolutely fine when I left the house, and got miserably darker on the way to work. The meal was highlighted by my own version of the omnipresent lunch apple, and Cheez-Its, the perfect snack food.

Day 3: Carrot soup, Ritz crackers, applesauce, and a note

Photo: Karl Gustafson

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During my kids’ big meeting with Kevin Pang, I believe he pitched them the idea of this easy, delicious microwavable soup. One cooked carrot, mashed into some milk, makes for a surprisingly filling lunch, tasting pretty pumpkin-like (I mean this as a compliment). I was also gifted with some Ritz crackers, applesauce, and a delightful note wrapped around a small stick that had a drawing on it and a cheerful greeting. Good news: I have really nice kids. Bad news: I am an asshole for not reciprocating on the note. That ends this year!

Valuable lunch lessons

I believe that this little experiment offered some valuable lunchbox nuggets for both the kids and me, including:

Think lunch when you’re making dinner. Bow-tie pesto pasta is a fine dinner that makes for a leftover lunch you won’t want to throw across the employee lunchroom. A rotisserie chicken may offer enough for a casserole for dinner and a sandwich salad the next day. A microwaved carrot left over from dinner can be turned into a deceptively easy soup.

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More is always more. Best to have too much than not enough. You might actually get hungry enough to eat that sad apple for snack. And it sure beats skulking around the office, pathetically feasting on leftover cereal.

Write a note, for god’s sake. September’s going to kick off, and things are going to get crazy really quickly. Surely I can find a few seconds to slip a note into their lunchboxes. Maybe even with stickers.

One more stop on that back-to-school shopping spree. The kids will likely be more enthused about their homemade lunches with some fab new lunch gear, with bento-like boxes for various lunch sundries. Which means that it’s back to The Container Store for us.

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Any other lunch suggestions? Believe me, I am all ears. Please list them in the comments!